Clay Collins is Co-Founder and CEO of Leadpages, a powerful and easy-to-use software tool that allows marketers to build customized landing pages and opt-in forms to capture email addresses.

In a recent conversation on my podcast, Clay shared the story of how he took a lifestyle blog and turned it into Leadpages, which in just over three years has grown into an 8-figure SaaS business with 46,000 customers and $38 million in venture financing. In July 2016, Leadpages dipped into its venture funds to acquire Drip, a marketing automation firm.

Clay's advice for entrepreneurs? Focus first on building a "Minimum Viable Audience"--before you start to build a "Minimum Viable Product." Here are some excerpts from our conversation in which he shared some of the practical strategies you can use to start building your "Minimum Viable Audience":

From blogging to vlogging.

"I had built a pretty successful lifestyle design blog. It went from zero to 4,000 RSS subscribers in about four months. A lot of people were more interested in how I had grown an audience for my blog than they were in my actual writing, so I started teaching about marketing.

I used to write these 4,000-5,000 word blog posts on how to do different things when it comes to marketing and maybe I'd get 20 or 30 comments. Writing isn't one of these strong suits for me. I think the end product comes out pretty good, but it's an agonizing process.

At around the time I was doing this, I discovered Gary Vaynerchuck, who had a wine blog called Wine Library TV. Where it took me 3-4 days to write a 4,000-word blog post, he would take wine bottles off the shelf, taste them in front of a camera--and completely unedited and uncut--he would get millions of views.

I said 'screw it': I needed to find a way to create content that efficiently. So instead of writing these long blog posts, I would take landing pages, and I would film a video talking about how they worked, share any split test data I had on them, and show how we would deploy them in some of my clients' businesses. It would take me half an hour to produce an episode and they were so much more popular than my blog posts."

The quote that inspired Leadpages.

"Then I came across this quote by Buckminster Fuller, the designer, author, and inventor. He said something to the effect that if you want to teach someone a new skill, don't bother. Instead, create a tool that will teach them the skill through the use of it. It's one of my favorite quotes. It got me thinking about how I could create a tool that has embedded within it best practices for marketing.

I hired this 18-year-old from Brazil to take the pages we were using with our clients and turn them into generic landing page templates. And then for $90, a firm in India would take the template design and turn it into a downloadable HTML file that anyone could modify and use in their own business."

From free HTML templates to software business.

"We were giving away these downloadable HTML templates that had embedded in them best practices about how to design a landing page or sales page, or an opt-in page for a free ebook, and people would go into the blog and leave comments.

Half the people were really enthusiastic and the other half were like, 'How do I integrate with Mailchimp? How do I split test this? How do I publish this to WordPress?'

The templates were free, but they were asking for pretty complex technical support. But then I had an idea: Maybe I could develop software that addressed everything they were asking for. So I went back to my audience, and I said, 'Hey, we're gonna build something that does all the things that you're complaining the free templates don't do. Would you be willing to pay for it?' And they said yes.

So I got 200 people to pay $200. We took the $40,000 and hired a developer who built the first version. This led to the creation of Leadpages."

First, build a minimum viable audience.

"I think what's really important about this story, is that we started with an audience. When it comes to software creation, a lot of people talk about a minimum viable product. I really think that before you you have a minimum viable product you need to have a minimum viable audience. And we had that. We knew how to create content that people wanted to consume.

I really think that long before anyone tries to start a business, they should try and create a blog or blog following that's substantial, and by substantial I mean if you have 2,000 people who passionately care about what you have to say. Maybe even 1,000 if they're passionate enough and commenting. If you're consistently getting about 15 solid comments on your blog posts you're probably there.

So we had this minimum viable audience, we pre-sold the product to them, and then we had a minimum viable product. That's kind of the genesis of Leadpages."

Give away as much valuable content as you can.

"We always gave away the HTML for the landing pages. So the story was always, we will give you this landing page template for free, that's no problem. Here it is, have at it, you can install it on your website, you can hookup whatever integrations you want. We were providing a lot of value.

A lot of people thought that if they just had the HTML, that would be enough. So they downloaded it and then at some point they realized, 'Well, I'm 2 hours into this, Leadpages is $37 a month, and I can deploy it in 5 minutes with Leadpages.'

There's so much to be gained by giving things away. I think people are well advised to figure out the most they can possibly give away without hurting their business and in a way that actually grows it. That was something that worked out really well for us; we got a ton of subscribers from those downloads."

Include customized calls to action.

"Most people have a very bland and boring call to action to join their newsletter. Maybe on the right-hand side of their blog, they'll put: 'Hey, want blog updates, subscribe here!' We found that, generally speaking, maybe half a percent of the people who visit your blog will subscribe.

You should keep that sign-up form there, but you should also provide a lot of other opportunities for people to join your email list or join your audience. In almost every blog post that we publish on drip.co or on leadpages.net we pair a downloadable content upgrade with our blog post.

Let's say we have a blog post on '12 things you can do to get more leads.' We'll write that article, and then at the very bottom we allow people to opt-in and join our list if they want to download a pack of articles, each of which illustrates one of the points in the article.

If you have a customized call to action that's tailored to that blog post and speaks directly to the reason someone might come to your post from social media or Google, you can sometimes get a 50% conversion rate versus half a percentage point on that blog post."

Forget about A/B testing: Include multiple calls to action.

"A lot of people are really focused on split testing their Leadboxes: What color it should be, for example. I wouldn't focus on A/B testing them. Our research has found that the best way to grow your audience is not to spend a ton of time optimizing your calls to action, your landing pages, or your forms--it's creating more opportunities for people to join you. So every single blog post has an opportunity to sign-up to our email list."

Treat every blog post like a launch.

"What I would encourage everyone to do is treat every single blog post like a launch and observe what worked. Look at what made everything work or not work, and gather all the signals you possibly can and understand how people responded to it. It's a slog. There's not a lot of tricks. It's just about doing the work."

Building an audience can change your life.

"I think there is no greater education that you can have as a marketer than meticulously growing an audience. Whether you're trying to add 3 people a day or 5 people a day, it's the hardest work, but it's also the most rewarding work.

Building that audience and interacting with them will change your life. And could be the basis for a business that's worth hundreds of millions of dollars someday, like it was for us.

Start with that minimum viable audience and go from there."

Listen to the complete conversation with Clay Collins on my podcast, Write With Impact.

Published on: Dec 28, 2016